Sicily I will admit is not a destination that normally appears on too many photographers bucket lists. To be honest it’s probably better known for being a foodie’s haven or maybe even a history buffs playground. For me however Sicily was on my list and somewhere that I had wanted to visit for some time. I did my research, packed my photograpic equipment, booked my flights, learned a few much needed Italian everyday phrases, threw the essentials in a suitcase and my two week Sicilian adventure began.
I landed in Palermo airport, the regions capital. From here most tourists head east towards the resorts of Catania, Messina or Syracuse. These are part of Sicily’s most developed areas with all mod cons for the thirsty sun worshippers. But not me. I headed out to the rugged west, a terrain marked by hills, valleys, cliffs and quiet little fishing villages. My final destination and my home for the next few weeks was to be in San Vito Lo Capo.
As I left Palermo airport behind in the rear view mirror of my rental car, the roads started to become smaller and dustier. A word of warning for anyone looking to drive in Sicily, the locals don’t take prisoners, so drive with caution! I continued on to my destination, which was a small fishing village on Sicily’s most western headland called San Vito Lo Capo. I passed through Castlemarre Del Golfo and continued up a steep hill. I pulled over the car and caught a glimpse of something in my mirror. I killed the headlights and looked out over the bay of Macari. I was greeted by one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen and as a landscape photographer I have seen a few. The bay was bathed in the light of a full moon and was highlighted by the sparse lights of the Castlemarre. In the bay itself the tips of the waves glistened in the moonlight as they ebbed to and fro. I was hooked already and I couldn’t wait to start shooting.
After two hours of driving on dusty roads and passing through sleepy villages, I arrived at San Vito Lo Capo. San Vito Lo Capo is a small hamlet that is lit by the rotating light of a local granite lighthouse. The lighthouse stands guard over the headland. After I finally figured out where to park and exactly where I was staring, I grabbed a slice of pizza from a local vendor and shortly afterwards I hit the bed.
I was woken early the next morning by a stream of sunlight peeping through a gap in the so called ‘black out shutters’. I got myself up, grabbed a quick shower and opened the blinds. I was presented with the stunning vista that is the Riserva Naturale Dello Zingaro. This is a giant rocky slab of limestone that sticks out of the surrounding hills like a monolith. In my two weeks in San Vito I only saw it’s cap clear of clouds once.
My first day was all about settling in. I had a lazy and leisurely breakfast followed by a walk around town in the stifling heat. Even though it was mid September during my visit, the temperature still reached 35 degrees during the day. From 10.30am – 5.30pm the light was far too harsh for any kind of outdoor photography, so I used this time to travel about and pin point where I wanted to come back to and shoot.
Sicily can be like a ghost town in the middle of the day, especially in the west where it is far from the main cities. Like most of the mediterranean, the place came alive at night. When the heat of the day passed, the street vendors, butchers and florists all come together to sell their wares. It was a cluster of colour, culture and traditions. Moving around the hustle and bustle of small towns in the evening is a must for any street photographer. There can be serious technical difficulties when it comes to shooting handheld at night, the rewards however are amazing. My advice here is to look for light and use it to set the stage for your subjects to walk onto.
Among novices and photographers that only dabble occasionally in street photography there is often a fear of using high ISO’s . In street photography not only is this acceptable but some photographers will even encourage it as an aesthetic choice. Just remember that street, reportage and documentary photography are not about technically perfect images but about moments or ideas and capturing something more than just an image. The local food markets and stalls are an ideal hunting ground and can be found everywhere, from the smallest fishing villages to the big cities.
So after settling into my now new home I started to venture outside the surroundings of the local village and move up into the hills around the Riserva Naturale Dello Zingaro. This was a stunning piece of coastline where jagged limestone hills met the MediterraneanSea. When I looked around the beaches, inlets and harbours I was surrounded by gentle rolling warm waters. The battered lighthouses and jetties tell a different story however, one of wet, windy and violent storms during windy winters. I could have spent weeks along this stretch of coastline working on one of my many a photography project.
My journey continued and after many days and may miles on the clock, I found myself parked on the side of a dusty dry gravel road about 10 miles north in the hills above Poggioreale. Poggioreale is well marked on any map, but I wasn’t looking for the new Poggioreale. Although it is a beautiful town, laid out by social planners in the 1980’s, I was looking for old Poggioreale which was destroyed and abandoned in 1968 during the Belice valley earthquake. In the aftermath of the earthquake the town had to be abandoned due to subsidence that continues today. After some choice language and almost giving up on my aging sat nav, I found myself going back to a ruler and OS map. One of the many skills One of the many skills I have picked up as a landscape photographer is navigation. Just give me a watch, a map and a ruler and I can put you within a few hundred yards of where it is that you want to go.
I eventually arrived at my destination. As I got out of the car, two things took me aback. Sicily is an island roughly about the same size as Ulster with a population of 5 million, yet what I noticed firstly was the dead silence. Secondly I spotted a pack of wild dogs roaming throughout the town. When I first saw those skinny and none too friendly looking dogs, I thought twice about entering. However as many of you know, many scenes worth photographing don’t always come easy. So I picked up a branch of an olive tree (my insurance weapon!) and walked in the old town. The gate was locked and had a notice on the front. My Italian is poor but I was able to make out that it asked visitors to “respect the area and memory of the people who perished in the earthquake”. It then dawned on me, Poggioreale is a giant memorial to the people who died there and to those who had to flee from there in 1968. As I walked around the town, it was one of the most surreal moments of my life. While writing this I still remember it all vividly. It was like time had stopped for Poggioreale. It was a ghost town.
Walking around the buildings that were once people’s homes, I was constantly reminded that this place was abandoned, not out of want but out of necessity. From building to building I found the remnants of people’s lives, old paintings, cups, trophies and books. The place was littered with the fragments of shattered lives. I walked into the old town hall and up a grandiose marble staircase I was then suddenly snapped out of my romantic musings by the sound of crumbling plaster. I stopped in my tracks and tried to locate the sounds, I then heard an almighty bang. Part of the ceiling and outer wall started to give way and landed a few feet away from me. I moved back gently but swiftly to head down to the streets. Also here, are the ruins of an 18th century baroque church, a police station, a town hall, public fountains and post offices. This place is a must for anyone who is travelling around the area. After brushing away he crumbled plaster, I sat down on an old marble bench that overlooks the panoramic hills of the Belice valley. I stole a few moments to admire the sunset.
The silence was deafening and the cicadas seemed to fall silent in memory of better times. As I looked around I could almost hear the echoes of life that once rolled through these streets. I felt like a tourist in someone else’s reality. If I could recommend one place for photographers and non-photographers alike, then this is it.
With a thirst on me and made my way to the air-conditioned cafe in the Segesta visitor centre. With my limited Italian I tried to order a cup of tea. Unfortunately my broken vocabulary wasn’t translated as I had hoped so I settled for what I was given, a coke. Next I embarked on an extremely steep climb up to the amphitheater to take advantage of the stunning views. When I was at top I took a couple of minutes to regain my composure and really wished that I had brought water instead of a coke! I also think I should have sprang the few extra euro for the bus up there instead of the 40 minute walk! The views however were more than enough reward and they provided me with so many unique photographic opportunities.
In front of me was a vista that rolls for miles, as far away as Trapani. At the base of the hill was the Segesta temple, one of the most complete Hellenistic ruins in Europe. This is a stunning and imposing structure and a must for any photographer looking to capture famous landmarks on their Italian trip. The limestone pillars glowed in the warm sunlight of the evening and the crows circled menacingly around its peaks. The area had a majestic, almost epic quality that came across in all of my images.
While I can only cover a small portion of my trip here, if asked, the two additional places that I would highly recommend are the Trapani saltpans and the medieval town of Erice. The saltpans are a flat rolling plain that have been used for salt production for centuries and are still a centreof industry. The pans are dotted with old Archimedes screws and quaint limestone brick windmills that glow every morning in the stunning Sicilian sunrise, and mountains of unrefined sea salt that lie strewn across the pans for miles.
Erice is a medieval city that lies perched on top of a mountain surrounded by plains. The city has not changed in hundreds of years. It’s polished cobblestones and winding streets house churches and museums that are hidden in clouds for most of the day due to its height. The city takes on an almost fairy tale quality and any photographer could spend a day here no matter what your photography style. Access can be achieved by road. I recommend taking the funvari cable car that leaves from Trapani. For a few euros you are treated to stunning scenes and a nerve-testing ride in even gentle winds.
When we think of Sicily it’s probably not photography that immediately springs to mind. I guess that’s what makes it such a stunning location to photograph. For most photographers it’s virgin ground where cliché shots are not a common thing. It’s wild and rolling west is undiscovered country and if you’re looking for a photographic adventure in the sun, then Sicily’s wild west is where it’s at.